Friday, November 15, 2013

Concert Review: RPO plays Rachmaninoff, Strauss, Hindemith

Posted By on Fri, Nov 15, 2013 at 9:12 AM

If you love Rachmaninoff even half as much as I do, you are going to love the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's delivery of his Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, led by guest conductor Junichi Hirokami. This week's concert offering of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra packs in nearly an hour of Rachmaninoff in its second half, and works by German composers Richard Strauss and Paul Hindemith into the first. Hirokami, along with Erik Behr on oboe for the Strauss concerto, demonstrates how to provide a thoroughly enjoyable classical concert at the Eastman Theater.

Let's start with the Rachmaninoff. The performance was of the complete score, unedited to fit some kind of time constraint, and it was placed in its own half. As soon as the RPO began to play, I had such an unhurried feeling that for the next hour - I could simply sit back and be taken away. No smart phone. No work deadlines. Nothing but the live performance, already deep into the bass and with the promise of a fiery, percussion-filled ending to come.

The gold-star moment came as the RPO slid ever so quietly off and faded away at the end of the Adagio movement. The phrasing and execution of that passage was divine. It was a demonstration of a key feature of the music of Rachmaninoff and others of that era from Russia: the performers must have the ability to rake your soul across the hot coals of hell, but, some moments later, offer a glimpse of the promise to come. To accomplish this, the RPO musicians are at once being compelled to deliver physical exertion and then being asked to contract, steady, and then slowly use those same muscles. It's not easy to pull off.

The guest conductor should be told that he received the equivalent of a standing ovation at the end of that Adagio movement: no one moved for what I believe was the longest bubble of silence I have heard at the RPO. No one wanted to break the spell that had been cast. Not a cough or a sneeze was heard in the house, and the Adagio was already the third movement of this lengthy symphony.

RPO first oboe Erik Behr was the soloist for the Strauss Concerto in D Major for Oboe and Small Orchestra, and he did a fine job. Running approximately 30 minutes, the piece was performed with continuous flow, even thought it contains four primary tempo markings. The piece has a rather refreshing quality - all the more so as it was performed after the Hindemith. Behr's technique speaks for itself as he breathes and fingers his way through even the quickest passages with ease.

This was the first time the RPO had performed the Hindemith, and it was interesting. On the one hand, it was a big, heavy, dense, German composition. On the other hand, it was acoustically interesting. How often do you hear a work without a wind section where the brass is full and has a meaningful role? At first, I jotted down "eerie," but that was perhaps incorrect; it may have been more of an agony.

So here's the thing: you are required to attend the RPO either this week or next. This week's concert has the sure thing of a Rachmaninoff symphony that I've heard and give a good performance thumbs up. Next week, we'll have Beethoven's "Pastoral Symphony," Nir Kabaretti, guest conductor, who I interviewed for our City newspaper article that profiled each of this season's guest conductors and give a super interview thumbs up. It's live. It's local. And it's just a great way to do something good for yourself before the madness of the holidays pulls us into the undertow.

The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra will perform the program again Saturday, November 16, 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, 60 Gibbs St. Tickets cost $15-$82. For more information visit the website.

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